I’m 18 and in the car chatting to my mother, and she’s unusually quiet. She’s probably not listening to me as I’ve spent the last half an hour raving about my new friend Haleema’s coursework. She pulls into the drive and stares ahead, silent.
“Maddie, I need to ask you something.”
“I’m not pregnant, don’t worry,” I respond quickly.
“No, I know.” She says a little too confidently. “I’ve noticed you’ve become a bit radical.”
I roll my eyes. “Mummy, we’ve been through this. I don’t hate men just because I’m a feminist.”
“No, I’ve got over that.” She says, evenly. “I’m worried about how much time you’re spending with the… Islamic crowd.”
To this, I pause, then burst out laughing. She looks confused, bless her, but I can see where she is coming from. I’ve started wearing longer skirts over the summer, spending less time with boys, studying Islam and hanging out with my reformist friends most evenings.
What she doesn’t know is that I’m probably the most unlikely person to be a radicalised jihadist on earth. I had just begun attending synagogue regularly and had a healthy interest in critical theology; not blind literalism, certainly not in terms of Salafism. I was, as most uncool kids are at 18, simply interested in learning about something.
“No, Mummy, I’m not a terrorist.” I say, eventually.
“I’m fine with you being a Muslim.” She says, honestly. “But I need you to know that some people have…dangerous views.”
“What, so I’m being groomed?” I mock back at her. “I’m going to end up in a burka at HAMAS marches, posting memes about how stupid western women are?”
She’s right to be concerned, as that’s probably what a parent should do when a child takes an intense interest in religion.
But it got me thinking: what is ‘normal’ religious interest?
I grew up in a household where I could have been whatever I wanted; atheist, Quaker, Catholic, C of E, even Hindu. I was very lucky to have a very open-minded mother and mad fathers to constantly challenge and open my mind up to new ideas. I’m a Catholic-Quaker-Anglican educated Jew at a secular university. So, how religious is ‘normal’ in my family? Very little, beyond the odd festival, which is more about eating together and shouting at my dad over his views on Brexit.
So, with a largely agnostic, highly anglicised family, I suppose it is a bit weird for me to believe in God. I let faith into my life when I make decisions, need a bit of reflection or an excuse to party, but I wouldn’t consider myself ‘extreme.’
I doubt a reform Jew could be very extreme, to be honest, beyond being fanatical about challah. I’m a bit of an alien in my family for this, but I’m still Madelaine, and I still get into arguments with my dad over how to deal with religious texts. I’m not isolated, feared or angry.
But what about families, or communities, where being ‘fanatical’ is a serious issue? When you are angry at the world, it’s easy to see everything as ‘you’ and ‘them.’ I remember as a teenager watching young people, particularly boys, becoming very angry, isolated individuals with radical views on the world around them.
“The Jews,” one friend told me one evening. “Control everything. They want a global war.” I got angry at him for this, as you can probably imagine, and he became even more withdrawn into his weird narrative of the world. When the US bombed Libya, it was the Jews. When the Conservatives won the elections, it was the Jews. Even when black people were being shot at by the police, it was the Jews, in his head. No sense could get through to him. I sometimes wonder where he is now. My image of his future isn’t that positive.
I’m lucky not to be isolated or pushed into a corner by a world where low-esteem jobs and jock culture pushes young men to the edges of society. I’ve never been exposed to a way of thinking that pushes me to be as angry, cruel and isolated as possible. That way lies madness.
I do worry about radicalisation – it’s so easy to disconnect by switching on a dodgy YouTube video or by following George Galloway on Twitter. When you only see the dark in the world, it begins to cloud you. You don’t see the fathers going home to tuck their kids into bed at the end of a day, or the joy on a bride’s face when her groom dances with her. You don’t see Israeli charities raising money to rebuild the houses of Palestinians. You just see military agendas, wicked governments and worse capitalists.
So, how can we counter radicalism? As much as I laughed at her for it, my Mum handled it really well. Confront it, listen and offer guidance. Sometimes you need to hear some sense from those closest to you.